English football must ‘rip up the rulebook’ to survive

FOOTBALl must ‘rip up the rulebook’ to find radical solutions to enable the sport to survive its gravest crisis.

Bradford City are among the clubs in Leagues One and Two who are struggling financially during lockdown.

According to leading football finance expert Rob Wilson, of Sheffield Hallam University, the game’s governing bodies must agree to a whole range of measures to safeguard clubs across the divisions – and fears that ‘eight to 10’ could go under in the English Football League if a rescue plan is not forthcoming.

Below the Premier League, clubs are likely to face a lengthy period without significant income with games set to be played behind closed doors for the rest of 2020 when football returns from its Covid-19 shutdown.

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Many in the lower leagues in particular are facing a battle to keep their heads above water, including Bradford City, with chief executive Julian Rhodes having admitted that the club are in the midst of a ‘fight for survival.’

EFL chairman Rick Parry has criticised the Premier League for failing to help lower-league football and says that clubs face a potential £200m financial black hole by September – while calling for a “complete reset” of the way the game is run and urging ‘evil’ parachute payments to be eradicated.

On the need for a major rethink, Wilson told The Yorkshire Post: “It is almost like a golden once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rip the rulebook up and almost start some of it again. Parachute payments are central to that.

“This crisis has set a shockwave through the whole system. So you either try and rebuild what you originally had or do something differently. That is where football is right now.

“I have been using the phrase of ‘skating on thin ice’ for years because football is a really fragile model. Adrian (Bevington – former Football Association executive) has now used the term ‘the mask has been removed’ to describe the false position football has been in.

“Last year, the data we were looking at said that 20 per cent of 71 (EFL) clubs, taking Bury out of the equation, were really running on fumes.

“This will have had a major impact upon that. It would not surprise me that if we have an extended period of games behind closed doors or no football at all, 1,400 players will suddenly be dumped out of the system because they are out of contract or you see redundancies as clubs just cannot pay wages.

“It would not surprise me if eight or 10 (clubs) start coming out publicly and saying we are just about done.”

Fortunately, Wilson does spy some hope, having been enthused by the comments of Parry to the House of Commons’ digital, culture, media and sport committee in outlining a series of ways in which football should respond to its own Covid crisis including the introduction of a wage cap and other forms of cost control.

The realisation among clubs that they must be open and willing to embrace change in the way football operates is something which he also views as a positive.

He said: “I have been impressed at what Parry and club owners have been saying. There seems to be a real appetite to do something differently and that it is not just an opportunity created by the crisis.

“A total of £270m (parachute payments) a year is currently being pushed into the system to a select group of clubs. You have money which you could distribute to Football League clubs to prop up that short-term cash flow on the understanding the model changes so they bring in tighter salary protocols.

“Philosophically, you need a culture shift away from a ‘winner takes all’ scenario into a more collective and  collaborative bargaining situation with more fairness in how payments are distributed. You could even go down the line of collective sponsorship agreements, so there’s an understanding that when clubs play each other that you have joint sponsorships and things like that.

“Everything, post pandemic, is going to be under intense pressure and you are not going to go out and find a big sponsor in your local community.

“It was hard enough before and will be even harder now because those businesses will be struggling. The cash crisis is acute.”

A potential cap on squad sizes and reforming the loan system are among other changes that the EFL are looking at alongside a reform of Salary Cost Management Protocol (SCMP) which limited what League One and League Two clubs can spend on wages in relation to turnover.

Player wage costs are broadly restricted to 60 per cent of income in League One and 50 per cent in League Two.

Wilson continued: “Salary Cost Management Protocols will need to change. The likelihood is that you will get a version of the salary cap – which is important – and of squad size limits and a redefinition of the proportion of income spent on wages.

“Then, there will probably be an adjustment to the loan structure whereby there are maximum limits that clubs can pay loanees to give more fairness across the competitions. It will mean more expensive players don’t go into a select group of clubs and can be distributed more evenly – to help cost bases and budgeting.

“All things on the table need appraising.”

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